Heart of Earth, Heart of Stone - Chapter Nine - Fornost
The hooded figure stood by the side of the young king of the Haradrim, his piercing blue eyes startling within the harsh visage. They stood before the great gates of the Citadel of Minas Tirith., waiting to welcome the embassy from their Allies in the East.
Pallandro grimaced at the brilliant and very gaudy colors that adorned the Easterlings' clothing. The exquisite designs that interlaced their glittering robes was in stark contrast to his own plain midnight blue. Standing silently beside the Easterling Ambassador was a figure that was very familiar to Pallandro. They had come together to Middle Earth from Valinor, and had worked in concert ever since. Pallandro nodded briefly at him, acknowledging his success in bringing the Haradrim at last into their proper place. The pieces were now nearly all gathered. Alatar returned his slight nod, though a worried look graced his kindly.
Pallandro nearly laughed at that thought. Kindly was nearly the last word he would use to describe Alatar. Loyal being the last, and weak being the first. He had been quite easy to manipulate.
The Easterling Ambassador raised one finger as a brief signal, and a group of ferocious looking warriors moved forward, surrounding shorter slower moving figures. From the clanking that emerged from the group Pallandro could tell that they escorted people who were heavily chained. He nearly snarled aloud as he realized who was among the group. Surely not. Alatar could not have been so foolish as to trust her to the custody of the Easterlings! No wonder the fool looked worried.
A short page, crowned with a towering turban, and clothed in brilliant orange robes, rushed up before the group as the guards separated, revealing a group of women, heads bowed, dressed in rags, and chained together. It did not take Pallandro long to select the Dae Kular Witch. Defiance oozed from her stance, even though she stood with head bowed just like the others.
The page cleared his voice, and announced in the thickly accented tones of the Easterlings, "Greetings to Castamir, Lord of the Haradrim, and Heir Apparent to the Throne of Gondor, from Ulfwarth, son of Ulfang, Sultan of the Great Land of Rhun, Lord of the Eastern Lands, and Conqueror of the West. As a measure of his intended goodwill, His Greatness wishes Lord Castamir to accept the gift of one of these slaves, with the hope that she will please him, and bring him many strong sons, to carry on the great name which he has established for himself in deposing the usurping family of Telcontar, may the jackals eat their bones.
"His Greatness wishes also to offer the services of His personal advisor, the Wizard Alatar."
The page continued, with many flowery phrases, but Pallandro turned his attention to the young man at his side. Castamir was generally a very pliable youth. Quite suited to his purposes. It should not take much effort to make him choose the Witch for his slave. A twisted smile crossed his face. It would be the ultimate punishment for her, eliminating once and for all the defiance that still lurked in her spirit.
Castamir stood, cutting off the page's words mid-sentence, and strode in the rolling manner of the Haradrim towards the line of women. The guards who stood behind them forced them to their knees. Most of the women toppled forward, collapsing weakly. But Zandra knelt gracefully, avoiding the guard's blow. Her head remained bowed, but Pallandro noticed Alatar fingering his ring, and knew that she was fighting his power over her.
The young Heir passed down the line, barely glancing at the filthy forms of the Easterling slaves. Pallandro smiled, this would be too easy. Castamir was used to the dark beauty of the Haradrim women, the Easterlings held no appeal for him. But the Witch's golden hair would be a novelty, as would her spirit.
As Pallandro predicted, Castamir paused before her golden head, and slid one slender finger beneath her chin, raising her face to his. Rather than lowering her eyes submissively, or even returning his gaze, Zandra looked past him, directly into Pallandro's eyes. He was staggered by the power raging there. She would be a formidable foe if she were allowed to be free. She knew who he was, and knew who he served. And if she ever escaped the power of Alatar's ring, it would be ill for both he and Alatar.
Pallandro knew a moment of fear. If one of them was so powerful, how could they deal with three?
Do not fear, my faithful one, His master's voice echoed in Pallandro's mind, It was prophecied that they will come to you. You will prevail over them, and bring them to me.
Jaessa's heart sank to her feet as she stared in undisguised horror at the charred buildings that appeared to be all that was left of Fornost. Some of the ruins were still smoking, and the air stank with the smell of decaying burnt flesh. She shook herself out of her shock and ran down the slope, oblivious to the others, falling to her knees by the side of the first figure she encountered.
He was dead. There was a crudely made arrow in his shoulder, judging by the blackness around the wound it made, it had been poisoned. She felt his face, it was cold, and as she looked she saw that flies had just began to gather upon him. Yesterday, he had died just yesterday.
Haldir crouched by her side, as Legolas and Gimli began to search around to see if any still lived. He lightly touched the arrow.
"Orcs," he spat, "Orcs were here. They got here before us."
"But," she paused, "It's so far from the northern mountains, they must have come from the East."
"It's even farther from there."
"How could they have gotten here before us?"
"Don't forget, you crossed the plain, and rested before we turned in this direction, they could have come straight here."
"And they would have," Legolas said, "Whoever it was you met there knew you were searching for Zandra, and told you she was in Gondor. It follows that you would head for Gondor. He just didn't realize you would head back West first. Fornost is in a direct line from Angmar to Gondor, if you are heading South before East. No doubt they sent some the other way, out of the mountains to the East."
A brief nod as she stood was all the response she gave. Though questions were churning in her mind. Why did they not just follow her? The voice which spoke in her mind was very powerful, why did it not merely follow her mind? It should not have been difficult. Even now, it should be able to find her with merely a thought. Unless something else were guarding her. Swallowing her grief, and mentally girding herself for what she would see, she strode into the village.
Bodies littered the ground, some charred, some mangled, all dead. The four travelers searched the remains of every building, but there was little left to be searched. Jaessa had difficulty keeping the contents of her stomach when she identified several wounds as bite marks. Not just the sort that a wolf makes to kill, but those as would appear on a leg of chicken being consumed by a human. These Orcs ate people!
It did not matter how much of this she saw, and she had seen much, she would never become inured to scenes such as this. However she managed to keep her composure until she came upon the first dead child.
Pain sliced through her heart as she flung herself to the ground beside the child, slowly she took his stiff body into her arms, cradling him gently. His eyes stared, glazed over, into the mockingly blue sky. He looked to be around five.
She no longer saw his face however, rather than his brown eyes, she saw eyes of grey and blue. His dark brown hair turned fair. Instead of the one child there was an entire field stained with the blood of children and babes. Broken bodies of those innocent lives lay scattered about carelessly. And in the midst of it all Jaessa knelt in helpless agony.
The terrible images of creatures clothed in black armor flooded her mind, despite her efforts to banish them. Slaying the children, striking them down as though they were stalks of wheat, their grotesque manlike-forms flinging their small bodies aside to massacre the next huddled group, chasing those who managed to have the courage to flee. And Jaessa could do nothing. Through the haze of blood and tears, and the excruciating pain she could do nothing but watch. Watch and blame herself. She had encouraged them to go to war, the parents of these children, encouraged them to fight. They had left her to protect their children had trusted her with what was most precious to them, believing she could keep them safe.
"Jaessa!" Legolas cried, "Jaessa come here! We need you! We found one alive!"
Thank you Legolas! She thought, thank you for stopping those thoughts. She couldn't let herself relive those moments, it could kill her.
Gently she laid the child again on the ground, and softly closed his glazed eyes.
Haldir ran around the corner of what seemed to be the village inn, "There is a woman here who still lives, but not for long if you cannot help her. I have not the skill to heal her, nor does Legolas, but we hoped that you might."
"I am coming. Where are they?"
Legolas looked up in relief as Haldir led Jaessa around the building.
"She still breathes, but it is shallow, and I can barely detect a pulse." He had found her huddled under a set of stairs, a long bloody gash across her throat. He never would have found her, but he had heard a small cry come from this direction, he had pulled her out, and she now lay reclined against the building, her arms wrapped tight around some bundle.
"Haldir, why don't you and Gimli begin the task of burying the dead," Jaessa said, kneeling by her side, and beginning to skillfully examine the woman.
"I thought, since you knew of athelas and it's restorative powers, you might have some skill in healing," he explained nervously.
"Yes," was all she said. He noticed that she seemed extremely pale, and her movements were shaky, much unlike her usual calm confidence.
She looked up at him now, her grey eyes large and sad. "There is nothing I can do. She is dead, her pulse stopped just as I got here. The only thing that kept her alive was her position under the stairs. Keeping her head against her chest slowed the blood. She was slowly bleeding to death, and bringing her out has allowed the blood to flow again."
Grief and remorse constricted his throat, his attempt to help her merely served to speed her death.
"What of her baby?" Jaessa asked, looking at the bundle in the woman's arms, though she made no move to shift the fabric that swathed the bundle.
"What?" Legolas had not realized that the woman held a baby. Was that the cry he had heard? Slowly he uncovered the small fuzzy head of a very young child, not even a year old.
Jaessa had drawn back, and now looked away, as though she could not bear to look. Legolas gently brushed the tiny head. It was still warm. Slowly those eyes, large in her small face, opened. An incredibly dark brown, almost black gaze met his, silent and fearful.
"Jaessa," he whispered hoarsely, "Jaessa, the babe lives!"
Immediately Jaessa was back, tears glittering on her long lashes, "Oh Dae!" she whispered, as the baby began to whimper, slowly, gently she raised the child from her mother's dead arms. The child's cries grew stronger as she was disengaged from the grasp of the only comfort that she had known. "Sh, it's alright my love, it's ok sweety, I'll take care of you. You'll be alright," Jaessa crooned to the tiny bundle. She swayed from side to side and slowly the child began to grow quiet.
"What are we going to do with her?" Legolas asked. How could they care for a baby? There was no other sign of life in the village, and the nearest town was Bree, two days out of their way.
"Well we can't leave her here," was Jaessa's pragmatic reply. She seemed suddenly to have completely recovered her equilibrium, and light seemed to glow from her face. Again Legolas was struck by how much she looked like Zandra. "One tiny life amidst so much death," she whispered to herself, "At least here there is still life." Legolas nearly didn't hear her, despite his keen hearing. He pretended not to have heard, though he filed away her words to consider later.
"Well, I'd best see if I can find anything to feed her with. If the Orcs attacked yesterday, then she probably hasn't eaten in all that time." So he strode away, leaving Jaessa sitting beside the dead mother, crooning and rocking the baby.
He found Haldir and Gimli piling the dead to be burned.
"We don't have the time to give them a proper burial," Haldir said, "So we are going to build them a pyre. I only hope that the fire does not attract the Orcs to return. How is the woman?"
"Dead," Legolas said, "But her baby is alive, and I am looking for something to feed her with."
"A baby?" Haldir said, his brow furrowing, "How are we . . ."
"I know. But we can't just leave her to starve to death."
"I think I saw a couple of goats away amongst the trees," Gimli said pointing, "I have heard that goat milk is good for human babes."
Legolas nodded and turned to walk into the grove of trees that stood just outside the village. Very soon he spotted the goats, three of them, gathered on the bank of a little stream that flowed between the hills towards the Brandywine to the South. They scattered as soon as he drew near, baaing loudly. Picking out the female of the group, he followed her swiftly. She dodged in and out among the trees, trying to lose him.
He was not so easy to lose however, and he stayed stubbornly on her trail. They needed the goat for the milk for the baby, and they would have her. He misjudged the distance around a tree, and his tunic got caught on a branch, giving the goat more of a lead.
A chuckle behind him alerted him to Haldir's presence. "Well, have you ever tried to catch a goat?" he asked in his defense. "Very stubborn creatures. I can't imagine why any human would keep them!"
"No doubt because they enjoy the challenge," Haldir laughed, "Come, the two of us should be able to round her up in short order."
So Haldir moved off to one side, and Legolas took the other. Soon they had the goat cornered in a little bend of the stream. Luckily she seemed reluctant to enter the water.
"It's alright little lady," Legolas said warily, "We're not going to hurt you."
[On three grab her,] Haldir said.
[One.] Legolas said.
[Thre . . .] Before Legolas could finish the word he suddenly found himself flying through the air, over the goat, and into the icy cold of the stream. There he sat, stunned, looking up at Haldir struggling with the female goat, while a male stood on the bank looking at Legolas in unholy glee.
Legolas watched hypnotically as the male backed up threateningly behind Haldir. Legolas thought about shouting a warning to the Lothlorien Elf, but decided against it, since Haldir had been laughing at him earlier.
Soon the other Elf was sitting next to him in the stream bed, equally soaked. Haldir had, however, managed to keep a hold on the she-goat. The goat appeared just as stunned as Haldir did.
"Bravo," Legolas said, slipping a rope around the goat's neck. "That baby had better be properly grateful."